Best of the Senior Wisdom Scholarship: Our Five 2019 Winners
A Place for Mom has offered scholarships to students preparing for a career working with seniors in 2013. As North America’s largest senior living care and referral service, we are passionate about assisting future senior care leaders and are proud to announce the 2019 “Best of Senior Wisdom” scholarship winners.
Best of the Senior Wisdom Scholarship: Our 2019 Winners
Choosing just five winners out of the hundreds of essays we received was a difficult task but our judges have chosen the following students as winners of the 2019 Senior Wisdom Scholarship:
- Emily Wakefield: Masters of Social Work at the University of Washington
- Linda Chang: Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine at A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine
- Naomi Zingman-Daniels: Masters in Translational Research in the Health Sciences at the University of Toronto
- Natalie Eichner: Medical School at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine
- Reginald Lamaute: B.S. in chemistry (pre-med) at the University of Pennsylvania
The Winning Senior Wisdom Scholarship Essays
I grew up in Olympia, Washington, but some of my happiest childhood memories took place about 2,500 miles away, in Chillicothe, Ohio. There, in a glorious big house in the woods where my mother lived as a child, I would throw Pooh Bear down the laundry chute, scamper down two stories, then find him in the hamper. I would play “office” at a child-size kitchen table from the 1950s, complete with a typewriter. I would pour milk each morning from a plastic cow pitcher onto a choice of sugary cereals we never had at my house. And I would listen to stories on the big screened-in porch.
In those stories, I learned about my grandparents’ lives, a time so different from my own. My grandparents grew up in a time of incredible uncertainty, of World War II and the Great Depression. Life was hard. Their childhoods were hard. Their stories took root in me, giving me values for my own life.
Because of the distance, we only saw Grammy and Grandpere a couple times a year. Yet, as the lucky among us know, distance can mean little to how a heart loves. My bond with all my grandparents is forever, but the one with Grammy is especially strong. Looking back, almost four years after her death, I celebrate two key life lessons she gave me.
The first is the importance of creating security, a sense of “home” wherever I may be. Unlike her own childhood home of poverty and divorce, Grammy’s Ohio house was full of a feeling of safety, security, love and acceptance. We wanted for nothing. I try to make my “homes” similar, even if home is a dorm room. I have my “things” — pictures of family and friends, the faded blue quilt Grammy made; my favorite artwork of her house on Tecumseh Drive. All are there, no matter where I am.
The second life lesson I will carry with me is Grammy’s great compassion. Grammy said it was important to love those who matter most “always, and in ALL ways,” meaning even when it isn’t easy. After my grandfather died in 2010, her health failed somewhat, and she moved to Columbus, Ohio, to be closer to my aunt. Such a move was hard for her at the age of 85. Her memory faded, more noticeably since Grandpere was not there to fill in the blanks. After some difficult months, Grammy moved to a memory care facility. She was lonely, missing Grandpere, her bridge games and her friends from the church she attended for 50 years. Though wobbly emotionally some days, she drew on past strength even then, primarily her interest in and love of people. She chatted like a trusted friend with staff, volunteers and fellow residents. When children visited, she would light up the room, asking little ones about their favorite stories and games. She grew to love these new people, and to love them in “all ways.” When we spoke on the phone, which was often, our chats regularly included her saying, “I’m so proud of you, honey,” to which I would reply, “Grammy, I’m so proud of YOU!”
I will take these lessons with me into this rich career opportunity. I will help older people create their own “home,” drawing on their myriad pasts. And I will cherish and preserve my compassion, just as Grammy did. Already in my memory care work, I have made a point to get to know all of my residents, even those who rarely left their rooms. After I earn my master’s in social work degree at the University of Washington, I hope to have more opportunity to change a system that leaves many older people feeling alone and worthless. I will remember individuals, not a faceless group of old people. As a society, we must do better by our oldest members. They are part of our collective value, worthy of respect, excellent care and kindness. As I do this, I hope to feel Grammy’s smile and hear her gentle voice: “I’m so proud of you, honey.”
The warmth of rice porridge, the minty scent of medicinal oils, and the hushed sound of my grandmother’s voice were the home remedies of my childhood. If these remedies failed, the shaman was invited over to fill our home with his rhythmic chants as my family believed it would scare away the ill spirit deteriorating our health. Prior to arriving in Los Angeles as Vietnamese refugees, my family had no exposure to Western medical care. Whenever I became sick, my grandmother would croon: “Dai Ga Jie,” she’d say, addressing me with a Chinese pet name meaning “Eldest Sister,” “let Grandmother rub some oil on your head.” Although visits to our primary care physician was an opportunity to understand our health and body like never before, we were illiterate in medical language. My family lacked an educational background and access to quality healthcare as farm laborers in Vietnam. Thus, being the first American-born “Dai Ga Jie” with an education and English fluency, I became my family’s health advocate.
My grandmother was our family’s first elder to have Western medical care. Before her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) by her PCP, my family was impatient, frustrated, and sometimes even harsh in response to her repetitive questions, as we could not understand her behavioral changes. For the majority of my family, “Alzheimer’s Disease” did not exist in our vocabulary. Being the first person in my family to go to college, I had learned briefly about AD in one of my biology classes, and was, therefore, the most informed about this debilitating neurological illness that plagued my grandmother and rattled my family. My trips home from college suddenly became family education sessions, where I showed pictures of AD patients’ brains to help illustrate the physical changes in my grandmother’s brain that paralleled her cognitive decline. “Can she be cured by taking medication?” asked my father as I translated the physiological changes. To answer his question, our lively conversation became somber as I explained the grim prognosis of her condition. My family was hurt and angered by what I had to say, but over time, became gentler and more empathetic towards my ailing grandmother and each other.
My relationship with my grandmother was not strained by AD, instead, it deepened. Even as her condition progressed, I continued to be at her bedside attentively listening to her relive her oldest memories of Vietnam before the war. The first time my grandmother looked at me, blinking and bleary-eyed, and asked “Who are you? Was a kick to my chest? But steadfastly, I stuck by her side as Dai Ga Jie, providing gentle company while also monitoring her changes and updating my family in each stage of her AD progression. My experience with my grandmother taught me that in order to holistically care for her, the shift in my family dynamic was pivotal after overcoming AD health illiteracy. From this experience, I realized the importance of empowering patients and their families in understanding their health fully. Because of my family’s healthcare experience, I aspire to make the medical language accessible for all and work with patients and their families in maintaining their health as a primary care physician.
I see myself being fulfilled as a culturally competent primary care physician assisting vulnerable populations in reclaiming their health, under their own terms. I believe osteopathic medicine will best equip me with the strong primary care foundation necessary to serve marginalized communities holistically. Growing up, my grandmother emphasized, “As Dai Ga Jie, everyone relies on you to protect and help them successfully navigate America. You must remember to fearlessly speak up for your family in this country.” Dai Ga Jie is more than my name, it is my devotion to my grandmother, family, and community. Taking the powerful lesson my grandmother embedded into my core value, I strive to be a vocal advocate and accessible primary care physician. In this manner, I will be able to not only establish an intimate physician-patient relationship but also include their support systems such as their caregivers and family members. I hope to not only be part of my patient’s healthcare team but also part of their family.
Anyone who ever met my grandmother would tell you that she was simply phenomenal. Living to 91 in a Manhattan apartment that she lived in for 75 years, my grandmother was a working mother in the 50s, which gives you a good idea of her drive. She traveled the world, going zip lining at 82 and hot air ballooning at 90. Even through college, I would sit on the floor at the side of her bed when I lived with her, talking until two or three in the morning about her life and her advice for mine. She had plenty of good advice (eat chocolate, try new things, and always go for the chunkiest jewelry possible), but much of what I learned from her was from simply watching her.
My grandmother loved fiercely, and not just with her family. A leader and author in the worker’s rights movement and outspoken in support of the civil and LGBT rights movements, she had always extended her hand towards others to bring and lift them up. I was constantly humbled by how kindly she took to new cultures and new people in her life, seeing how best she could support and stand by them. It was never a question with her as to if she would welcome anyone with open arms – she stood as a beacon of safety for not only me and her family but eventually many of our friends as well. From speaking with those that knew her from when she was younger, it was clear she had always been this way, an ingrained part of her heart and personality.
Although she passed in 2016, I carry her around in my heart daily today. When considering whether or not to do something, one of the first questions I ask myself is if it would have been something she would have done or approved of. When dealing with frustrations or like I am throwing myself a brick wall, I remember the grace with which she carried herself to the fight for the good of society and those around her. If she would have approved, I know I am on the right track. And like she would have, I work to expand the world for others.
But I also remember how frustrated and limited she felt as she aged when she was unable to do as much. And I remember how frustrated I felt, living with her and trying to help as best I could, in seeing how many people did not care or make available technologies that could have helped her. I saw how many places quickly became inaccessible to her. I saw how little help was available, even for her. A woman who was so active for so long in her life, to be so limited was so painful for her, and that pain reverberated in my family, even before we took care of her in her final days. I remember relaying how she was doing to my parents in hushed tones so she would not hear me talking about it. And I remember talking to my friends about it – and so many of them understanding from their own personal experience. I realized this was happening far too often.
Our elderly loved ones have led the way for us all our lives, but we as a society do not do enough when it comes to helping them have a quality of life that they have worked so hard to provide for all of us. In my work in implementation and in the health space, I see so many fabulous interventions and inventions that could help so many people live so much better. But these interventions are simply not getting to the people that need them. With my education and network from my graduate schooling, I plan on doing everything I can to discover and help implement ways that we can provide a high quality of life right until the end. In her memory, I also plan to approach it with equity, making sure it is accessible to everyone, no matter their culture or socioeconomic status – reaching out, as she did, to those in need to help them be and live their best.
How June and a Banana Inspired Me to Become a Physician
I will never forget a woman named June, one of my first patients as a Certified Nursing Assistant student. She was a fragile-looking older woman with severe scoliosis and disheartened eyes who could hardly lift her head up to respond to my touch. As I helped her settle in, I tried speaking to her, but she just smiled and held my hand. She did finally whisper: “I’m starving.” Surprised, I looked at my watch to see that it was only 11am. Breakfast had just finished for the residents and I wondered how she could be hungry. All I could see, however, were her eyes pleading with me to get her something to eat. I sprinted to the meal prep area, only to find a meager banana. Grabbing the banana, I ran back to her room, sheepishly presenting it to her. I crouched down beside her and broke it into smaller pieces for her to chew. I felt my eyes welling up with tears while she ate the banana as quickly as she could. I looked around her room, hoping to regain my composure. I saw smiling pictures from good times past; a white stuffed dog and a stack of thick books, all reminders of her humanity. Once she finished eating the banana, she grabbed my hand and gave a gentle squeeze. I smiled but wanted to do more. This overwhelming feeling of wanting to do more to help her (and others like her) has stuck with me ever since.
Within the next few months, I became a home-health CNA. These experiences provided me with another unique perspective: the challenge of providing patient care in an individual’s home. In the patient’s home, surrounded by photos of their family and friends, personal mementos, and other items of sentimental value, I remember feeling as if I was invading their privacy. The stark contrast of these loving and warm items with the seemingly impersonal and cold medical equipment was apparent to me. However, as time wore on, I began to appreciate the constant reminders of these individual’s humanity, even as they suffered through what were undoubtedly some of the most terrible and trying times of their lives. I remember the feeling of total panic as I called 911 while supporting the body weight of a client with my petite 5’1” frame. Once again, while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I looked around her room, finding comfort in the picture of a young girl with no front teeth, posing for the picture, or the faded but still smiling faces of this woman and her husband on their wedding day many years ago. Despite where she was at this very moment, she had lived a full and joyous life. The only thing I could do now was to treat her with the utmost respect and kindness. As it turned out, I was the last person on this earth with whom she spent her final day; she passed away peacefully in her sleep the next morning. These interactions continued to fuel my desire to want to be able to do more.
My road to medical school has been anything but straight; I faced some major setbacks that threatened to derail my dream of becoming a physician. The conviction to continue to pursue medical school, despite some major setbacks, was fueled by my experiences with these individuals (and others) described above. I have learned something about the clinician I want to be from almost every single patient interaction up to this point, starting with June. I am grateful to June; despite being one of my first patients, she taught me what I believe to be one of the key tenets of being an excellent healthcare provider: to never forget the humanity of the patient sitting in front of you. Although I will most likely not be able to touch June’s life as a physician, she and the others led me down this career path and I want to honor their memory in every one of my future patient interactions. I want to be the doctor who fights for June.
Learning to Give
My Grandpa Bob is slim, tall and wears brown round glasses. He is very energetic and laughs a lot. He’s 72 now and, while he no longer practices medicine in the US, he still brings to one of the poorest regions in Haiti, his birthplace, his skills as a doctor and healer. Grandpa Bob always returns to the same little town, Carrefour, in one of the poorest regions of Haiti. I hadn’t known about these trips until the Christmas when I was 12. We were in the living room in his house on Long Island where my family gathered at holidays. As usual, he asked me what I was reading. I told him Candide ou L’optimisme. We talked about Voltaire’s view that optimism is a form of naïvety, a point on which my grandfather agreed. I felt that optimism was a natural state of being, at least at that point in my life.
My grandfather smiled and said, “When I go to Haiti, I sometimes feel like there is no hope, and I can see where Voltaire was coming from.” He described conditions there that I would never have imagined. “It’s a mess, filthy, terrible health care, people dying for no reason other than the proper medication is not available, medication we find so easily here.” There was one little girl he treated who remained on his mind many years later. This little girl had sickle cell anemia. She had intense pain located mainly in her cheek, which made smiling difficult. “But she tried to keep a smile on her face,” my grandfather said. “Always that bright smile.” She told him that when she beat this disease she would go to university. Even as her condition worsened, she remained determined. “If she had been in the US she would have survived,” my grandfather said. I asked him, “If it’s so horrible and depressing, why do you keep going back?” He looked at me straight in the eyes and what he said had a great impact on me. “I always asked myself when I was little: what can I do with my life to make it worthwhile. With privilege, I feel, comes responsibility. I’ve come to believe that the purpose of life is to do good and to try to help the less privileged. I hope I’ve done that in my life.”
When Grandpa Bob told me about Haiti it was hard to visualize the conditions that he was describing. Likewise, privilege was as abstract a concept to me. I come from a long line of educated Haitians, most of them are doctors. I’ve taken for granted the comforts and safety of my home, that I have attended some of the best schools and have ready access to top medical care. I never thought of myself as privileged; this was simply my life.
My way of looking at things, including myself, changed when I went to South Africa. In March of this year, I was selected as one of 15 students worldwide to participate in the Experiment Leadership Institute, a month-long study abroad program in South Africa. I had read about shantytowns and the limited access to something as basic as clean water. I’d also read about the incredible wealth. Still, I was unprepared for what I saw. The juxtaposition of extremities, the proximity of shacks to gated mansions. In every city we visited, from Durban to Johannesburg and Cape Town, there were stunning contrasts. Next to a glossy modern office building, there were shacks cobbled together with what we would consider refuse. Shack walls made of discarded cardboard boxes, scrap metal roofs that looked ready to collapse.
I understood the hopelessness and sadness that my grandfather must have felt in Haiti. It did seem overwhelming, the vast poverty, the stark contrasts in how people lived. I had the urge to call him and tell him “I understand what you mean. I also understand why you keep going back.” In that moment I finally learned the lesson my grandpa was trying to give me. There is nothing more important than giving back to those in need.
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